Cambodia-UK Into 70 Years of Diplomatic Relations

Samdech Hun Sen received a courtesy visit from the UK Ambassador to Cambodia H.E. Dominic Williams, on 20 February 2023, at the Peace Palace, Phnom Penh. Photo: SPM

The relationship between Cambodia and the United Kingdom has lasted 70 with a break of 16 years. Current relations hold the promise of greater future cooperation yet some areas need to be revisited and strengthened.

Diplomatic relations between Cambodia and the UK marked their 70th anniversary in 2023. Over seven decades, both kingdoms experienced complex and enduring relations through numerous critical junctures.

Relations between the countries had a rough start but have evolved, especially since the 1990s. After gaining independence from France, Cambodia immediately embarked on a seemingly unwavering diplomatic journey amid the Cold War. The UK, after diminishing influence, added further complexities to the pursuit of diplomatic goals.

In the 1950s, both countries shared a common interest in maintaining Cambodia’s neutral stance. Since then, the world has been divided between communism and capitalism, complicating the foundation of both nations. In 1975, Cambodia-UK relations were officially severed.

Despite the formal tie breakaway, informal communication was still considered relevant and important for Cambodia and the UK. The UK remained engaged in providing humanitarian assistance at the refugee camp at the border of Cambodia-Thai and supporting the peace process. To contribute to UNTAC operations, the UK dispatched 38 military observers, 13 mine clearance training experts, and 70 Royal Navy and Marine personnel serving as naval monitors.

Cambodia and the UK launched the inaugural Joint Trade and Investment Forum (JTIF), on 26 May 2023, at the Ministry of Commerce. Photo Credit: British Embassy in Cambodia

Formal Cambodia-UK relations resumed in 1991 after the UK mission returned to Cambodia. The British Embassy reopened in 1993 following UNTAC-led national elections.

The return of official diplomatic relations marked a turning point as they embarked on a new journey for more direct and proactive cooperation, understanding and friendship in a wider range of areas.

Since then, the relationship between Cambodia and the UK has been growing healthily. The UK has become one of the key partners in pushing Cambodian development during the post-war conflict through aid assistance and social development programs, particularly in areas such as education, women’s empowerment, mine clearance, environment and community-based development.

The baggage of the past does not deter their new era of friendship. Instead, it gave the lesson learned and a way to continue their manner of diplomacy. The UK has strongly supported and worked with Cambodia in the successful and remarkable demining activities over 122 square kilometres, the detection of nearly 70,000 landmines and unexploded ordnances, as well as supporting victim assistance programmes, and continued ambition to make Cambodia mine-free by 2025. It is a testimonial of the goodwill for Cambodian people to rebuild their safe lives.

Cambodia and the UK are collaborating in various areas. In education, both countries have established a close collaboration on promoting STEM education, TVET and even higher education, such as the provision of regular Chevening Scholarships for 209 Cambodian students until 2022 and looking forward to the opening of the first UK niversity in Cambodia this year. Over than this, the close collaboration on the environment and good governance also increased.

Regardless of the relationship between both countries becoming mature in age, it is essential to acknowledge that the political and security cooperation between the two countries is still at a nascent stage. Recognising the significance and importance, Cambodia has opened its doors to a wider partnership with the UK. Recently, the presence of the UK Royal Navy ship HMS Spey to Sihanoukville in early 2023 and many high-level military visits and exchanges have demonstrated that a new sign of cooperation has emerged.

Every treasure has a puzzle; relationships have challenges. Cambodia’s history shaped its current landscape, and socio-political, democratic, and human rights challenges. The country faces criticism for its handling of lack of freedom of expression, civil and political rights, and political competition for the opposition. However, there have been notable achievements in their closer cooperation, such as the Cambodia-UK Dialogue on Human Rights which allows open and consultative discussion and identifies the unique character of their relations on these matters.

H.E. Prak Sokhonn met with UK Minister of State, Rt Hon Amanda Milling MP at the sideline of the 55th AFMM in Cambodia.  Photo credit: MFAIC

Looking at the 70th diplomatic anniversary and the prospects, the future of Cambodia-UK relations presents a promising and positive avenue for both to advance their cooperation in many areas into comprehensive and wide-ranging actions.

To maintain a strong partnership, Cambodia and the UK should focus on building trusted, respectful and mutually understanding partners within bilateral and regional cooperation. A key strategy is to continue their vigilant and gentle negotiation in dealing with the issues, rather than being highly publicised. Additionally, the suggestion to upgrade the Dialogue on Human Rights to the Political Consultation from Cambodia to the UK will also boost the relations closer than ever.

Both kingdoms must prioritise fostering and cultivating people-to-people exchange and cultural aspects. In Cambodia, English is commonly spoken as a second language, and British sports and music enjoy widespread recognition. This further enhances the potential benefits of increasing opportunities in this area.

Cambodia should continue to diversify its foreign policy with the UK, focus on high-level visits, establish regular dialogue and promote cooperation in areas like trade, investment, education and culture. Attract British investments by improving the business environment, reducing red tape, and enhancing legal frameworks that protect investors. Maintaining balanced relations with China while actively engaging further with the UK and the US should be considered to emphasise its commitment to an independent foreign policy.

In the meantime, the UK should also focus on core values and contribute to Cambodia’s reconstruction and development through the efficient and rightful human resources for the nation-building process based on their expertise and focus on good governance. Besides, the Cambodia-UK should also think of raising more awareness among scholars, researchers and students through conducting public events and research.

Overall, enhancing Cambodia-UK relations can create a mutually beneficial partnership that fosters economic growth, cultural exchange, and cooperation on various fronts. It can contribute to Cambodia’s development goals, while also benefiting the UK in terms of trade and political cooperation in the Southeast Asia region.


Vanndasambath Chhuon is a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and the general coordinator of the ASEAN-UK Young Leaders Initiative.


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